Monday, November 26th, 2012

November SOTT & author interviews

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes a reminder about SantaThing (signups continue through November 29, so head right over to the SantaThing page to join the fun!), as well as author interviews with Jon Ronson, Nancy Marie Brown, Jon Meacham, and Christopher Bonanos.

I talked to Jon Ronson about his new book Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, just out from Riverhead. Some excerpts:

For those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, give us the nutshell version of Lost at Sea. What’s the thread that ties these twenty-two short pieces together?

These are funny, sad stories about people lost at sea, trying to make their way through the world. Sometimes they reach for crazy ideas to get them through, sometimes horrifying ideas, sometimes silly ideas, sometimes even inspiring ideas. I see this as an empathetic book about people spiraling out of control.

They sometimes feel like adventure stories. I get into some dangerous scrapes. Other times they feel like mystery stories: there are actual mysteries that need solving. Sometimes the mystery is, Why does this person believe this crazy stuff? Or, Why does this person act in this baffling way?

There’s a Christmas-themed town in Alaska where every day is Christmas and the kids have to be Santa’s elves. A bunch of them were recently arrested for being in the final stages of plotting a school shooting. There’s a real-life superhero who dresses in a supersuit of his making and breaks up gangs of armed crack dealers in the dead of night. I went along with him. It was terrifying. There’s a billionaire filtering her money into creating a robot version of her real-life partner that she’s convinced is about to burst into spontaneous life. I interviewed the robot. And so on.

How much follow-up do you do on your stories? Do you keep in touch with folks you’ve profiled? Once you’ve finished writing, do you move on to other projects?

I like to keep in touch—I’m never happier than when people from my stories appreciate how they’ve been portrayed. That doesn’t always happen. I’ve stayed in touch with maybe half the people in my books. Just today I corresponded with two of them: Phoenix Jones, the real-life superhero, and Mike Coriam, the father of Rebecca Coriam. Hers is the title story of the collection. Rebecca was a young woman who worked on the Disney Wonder, a cruise ship. She went missing on it one day—she just vanished. The Coriams have had no luck trying to find out what happened. They feel they’re hitting a brick wall. I went on a cruise on the ship to learn what I could.

If you could interview or profile one person you haven’t had the chance to talk to, who would it be? What would you want to ask?

Right now—and this is unusual for me, because I’m not so interested in writing about famous people—David Bowie. He seems to have retreated from the world. He’s barely been seen for six years. I would love to know why, and would like to ask him to reflect on his life.

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Ronson.

I also had the chance to talk with Nancy Marie Brown about her new book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macillan). A few teasers:

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are probably first on that list. I also loved C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy. I’ve had a very pretty edition of Tennyson’s poems since sixth grade—but I’m afraid I like it more for its fake leather binding and slipcase than because the poems resonate. In high school I discovered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (probably in Tolkien’s translation), and that was my entry into studying medieval literature.

What’s your home library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

My whole house is a library—my husband, Charles Fergus, is also a writer—so it depends which floor you are on. The basement holds our general fiction, poetry, fantasy, and science fiction collections. In my husband’s office is mostly nature and science. Upstairs is the general nonfiction collection and a small collection of children’s books and young adult novels, which I’m studying to learn how to write one. My office is taken over by Icelandic literature (both modern and medieval, in English and Icelandic) and books about Scandinavia, Vikings, folklore, medieval literature and scholarship, and travel (mostly to Iceland and northern Europe).

Read the rest of our interview with Nancy Marie Brown.

My third interview for November was with Jon Meacham, about his new biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, out this month from Random House.

As part of your research process, you spent a night in Jefferson’s bedroom at Monticello. Can you tell us about that experience? What insights did you gain from being there that helped you understand the man better?

I was struck by the play of light in his rooms. The sun strikes his chambers first, and he always woke at first light—a sign of his constant engagement with the
world, and of his endless energy.

You write in the Epilogue about Jefferson’s legacy, and about how he has, over time, “provided inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture.” What is it about the Founders in general, and perhaps Jefferson in particular, which has lent itself to such wide-ranging interpretations? What do you see as some of the most common misconceptions of Jefferson’s philosophy or positions today?

Jefferson represents the best of us and the worst of us—our highest aspirations and our most disappointing failures. It’s easy, then, to find ourselves in a kind of
conversation with him as we look to the past for inspiration and for instruction. I think the most stubborn misconception about him is that he was solely a man of ideas. My view is that he was at once a philosopher and a political realist.

If you had the chance to interview Jefferson, but could only ask a single question, what would it be?

What is your greatest regret?

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Meacham.

Last but not least, I was able to chat with Christopher Bonanos about his book Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press).

How did this book come about? What first got you interested in the story of Polaroid?

I was always a Polaroid shooter, from my teenage years, when I got a secondhand camera. (A Model 900, from 1959, marked $5, bargained down to $3.) And when Polaroid film was discontinued for good in 2008, I wrote a little magazine story that led me to the story of the company’s rise and fall and rebirth, and Land and his extraordinary invention. You find a good story with an amazing central character, and if you’re a writer, you start to think “that’s a book.”

Tell us about your research process: what sources did you find most useful? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Polaroid’s archive contains a few million documents and photos, and during the company’s bankruptcy, the whole pile went to Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. The person in charge of it, a librarian named Tim Mahoney, is going to spend his whole career on this one collection, it looks like, and the first tranche of it came open to researchers around the end of 2009. So in January 2010, I started logging a lot of time there. Also, the company’s museum collection (prototypes and such) went to the MIT Museum, where I also did quite a bit of digging. And then a lot of the extraordinarily smart people Land hired are still around, and I spoke to lots of them.

Surprising things I learned: Polaroid kept everything. EVERYTHING. In the company’s early days, Land had been involved in a patent dispute, and after that, each idea was disclosed, signed, witnessed, and dated. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like those files when you’re trying to figure out how an invention got off the ground.

Another big surprise: Land made a point of hiring woman scientists, which was highly unusual back then. He was friends with an art-history professor at Smith College who would recommend his smartest students, and Land would scoop them up every year. A lot of them were, as you’d expect, art-history majors, and he’d send them off for some chemistry classes and build his own scientists that way. It was an end run around the usual pool of graduating talent, and it also made those women extremely loyal. A lot of them stayed at Polaroid for decades.

You’re something of a Polaroid enthusiast yourself, I understand? How long have you been using Polaroid cameras? Are you still using them today?

I started shooting as a kid, though that camera is no longer useful: it uses a film format that’s out of production. But I do carry another camera (Model 180, for the cultists) with me every day, and I try to shoot my son at least two or three times a week. I’ve been keeping an album since he was born, and I have to assume he’s one of the very last kids who will be documented that way. (I take plenty of digital photos of him, too, of course.)

Read the rest of our interview with Christopher Bonanos.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Add events to LibraryThing Local, Give books to needy readers!

Short version:


Long version:

For every bookstore and library event added to LibraryThing Local from now until January 1 April 4, 2013, LibraryThing will donate up to 15 cents to put books in the hands of the needy.

Adding events is easier than ever. To add events go to LibraryThing Local and choose “Add event” there or under a specific venue (bookstore or library).

In addition to manually entering events, programmers can also use our new Add Events API (also see blog post) to add events by the hundreds. Go ahead, cost us millions.

Price list.

$0.15   Manually-added event with author and work touchstones
$0.05   Manually-added event with no touchstones
$0.04   Automatically-added event with working author and work touchstones
$0.02   Automatically-added event without touchstones

We’re only going to count events added to real-world bookstores and libraries, and the events must be future events, not past ones. Events can be in any country.

What happens after January 1 April 4? We don’t know. If it’s a success, we’ll probably keep doing this.

Where Will The Money Go? We need to find a good place for the money to go, and ask for help finding one—or creating our own project from the ground up. Some projects that inspired us include:

  1. Buy India a Library, which, builds and staffs a library in a poor part of India (see my friend Andromeda Yelton’s YouTube video about it, another friend, Justin Hoenke is also involved).
  2. One Library at a Time, responsible for creating two libraries in Panama and starting another in Ghana.
  3. Libraries Without Borders

There must be many more. I’m also interested in South Sudan, where LibraryThing member johnthefireman works.

Come discuss where we should spend the money on Talk here.

Why we’re doing this. LibraryThing Local has been a success, but mostly as a way for members to mark and broadcast their favorite bookstores and libraries.

LibraryThing Local Events originally included some automatically-added events, especially a full event feed from Booksense/IndieBound, but IndieBound eventually decided to stop providing event feeds to sites like LibraryThing after booksellers complained that their events were being, yes, listed on the web. (Really.) Meanwhile, automatic feeds from some other sources foundered on the lack of a good way for members to filter out low-interest events, such as daily storytimes.

All-in-all, events have suffered. The fewer events showed up, the less attractive the events system seemed. LibraryThing members continue to curate and improve the system constantly (with over 4.6 million edits to Common Knowledge, 3.4 million work combinations and separations, etc.), but events have lagged behind.

Meanwhile, LibraryThing has become a profitable company (clap, clap, clap). We’re not wildly profitable, and are spending most of our money on hiring new people, but I feel it’s important to give something back the moment we can do so. Staff and members have long wanted to help build a library in a poor country, or for a disadvantaged population. As someone said, “what you can do, you should do.” We can do this.

But if we’re going to do it, why not get members involved–improving the site for all and “buying into” the charitable project?

The Fine Print. Events added to LibraryThing Local, whether manually or using the Add Events API must be connected to a unique LibraryThing account and conform to the the LibraryThing Terms of Service. The addition of spurious, spam or any other non-events is not permitted, will not count and may result in the suspension of your LibraryThing account. If event quality suffers, we may have to adjust what qualifies. What events qualify is up to our sole and final discretion.

LibraryThing shall determine how the money will be spent, when and where. We are setting an initial, optional limit of $1,000 per member and $5,000 overall, just in case someone figures out how to add 500,000 events we didn’t know existed.

We reserve the right to modify the fine print at any time, and to cancel the program as well.

We are giving ourselves legal leeway here. We want no basis for getting sued. But if we scrooge this up, you are encouraged to excoriate us for it everywhere you can.

Come discuss the feature in general here.


Image of coins courtesy Flickr user freefotouk (Ian Britton).

Labels: events, fun, gifts, librarything local

Monday, November 19th, 2012

LibraryThing Local Events upgrades

We’ve been making some changes to how events are added and displayed in LibraryThing Local. The big change is a simplified way to add events: the old system, involving picking authors, picking books and characterizing the event (“X reads from Y”) is out, replaced by a simple description box, but with the ability to add touchstones, just like on Talk.

To add events, go to the venue page or just go to “Add event” http://www.librarything.com/local_add_v2.php

The goal is simplicity. The new interface requires less—some people will just paste descriptions in. But events are primarily about what’s going on near you, not finding out where in the country so-and-so is speaking next month. If you use touchstones, however, it creates the links and puts the events on the author’s LibraryThing page, which is handy.

Here’s what it looks like:

Come discuss in the Talk thread.

Events added under the new system can also include a cover image (it will display the most popular cover of a work touchstoned in the event description):

And finally (though there’s more coming soon!), there’s now a way to filter out events you don’t want to see or aren’t interested in (by author, store, or keyword).

When you mouse over the event, clicking on the “x” leads you to a list of options. Basically, you can filter out the event, the venue, or any events with certain words in them (eg., “storytime”). You can set your event filters at http://www.librarything.com/editprofile/local (the “Local” option under “Edit profile and settings.”). Come discuss here.

Stay tuned for some more news on LT Local and events soon!

Labels: events, librarything local, new feature, new features

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

SantaThing 2012: Play secret Santa to a book lover!

We are delighted to announce the sixth annual SantaThing!

What is SantaThing, you ask? SantaThing is Secret Santa for LibraryThing members. Go ahead and sign up now.

The idea is simple. You pay into the SantaThing system (choose $15, $20, $25, $30, $35, or $40). You play Santa to a LibraryThing member we pick for you*, and choose books for them. Someone else (secret!) does the same for you. LibraryThing does the ordering, and you get the joy of giving AND receiving books!

You can sign up as many times as you like, for yourself or for someone else. If you sign up for someone without a LibraryThing account, make sure to mention what kinds of books they like, so their Secret Santa can choose wisely.

Even if you don’t want to be a Santa, you can help by suggesting books for others.

Important dates:

  • Sign-ups close Thursday, November 29 at 4pm Eastern time. Shortly afterwards, we will tell you who you are matched up with by sending a profile comment and you can start picking books.
  • Picking closes Thursday, December 6th at 12pm Eastern time. As soon as the picking ends, the ordering begins, and we’ll get all the books out to you as soon as we can. There’s no guarantee that we’ll have books to you by December 25th, but we’re going to do our best!

> > Go sign up to become a Secret Santa now!

The details. Every year we tweak SantaThing a little. This year we’re thrilled to be able to involve Portland’s own Longfellow Books as one of the bookstore choices. We’ve also adjusted the payment levels given the demand from last year, adding $35 and $40 options and removing the little-used $10 option (it also proved very difficult to find a book that hit that price point well). Like last year, though, you choose to pay what you want: if you pick $15, for example, someone will pick $15 worth of books for you. Choose $30, and someone will pick $30 worth of books for you.

If you choose the $15, $20, or $25 options, you can choose to have your books picked and sent from Powell’s Books, Longfellow Books or BookDepository.com. Book Depository ships to the most number of countries (see the full list), but if you’re located outside the UK, they can’t promise that your books will arrive before Christmas.

If you select the $30, $35, or $40 options, you can choose from any of the options above in addition to Amazon.com or its national subsidiaries (.uk, .ca, .de, .fr, .it, .es).**

You don’t need to factor in shipping. There’s also no profit “cushion” built into this for us, although we expect under-orders to pay for situations where the shipping isn’t free. We do this for fun, not money.

We’re allowing folks to request e-books this year, but only via Amazon.com and you must live in the US. We’re sorry to limit it, but last year proved very tricky to manage in terms of rights and availability for e-books outside the US.

That’s it. Go sign up now!

Questions? Ask them in this Talk topic.

Update: As in past years, LibraryThing members are sponsoring SantaThing gifts for others. You can join in the fun here. We love that our members do this: you all are awesome.


*We match members based on the contents of their catalog, thereby matching you with a Secret Santa you share tastes with. In theory. No guarantees.
**Restricting Amazon to the $30 option or higher is necessary because LibraryThing can’t get free shipping unless the gift totals $25 or more.

Labels: santathing, secret santa

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

“The Casual Vacancy” Review contest winners!

Drum roll please … I’m happy to announce the winners of the review contest for J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy.

As promised the top three reviews (those with the most “thumbs-up” when the contest closed) win a $50 gift card to Amazon, Abebooks, Booksense, or any independent bookseller of their choice, a LibraryThing t-shirt and a lifetime membership (to keep or give away).

The top three are:

Seven runners up* (the next seven reviews with the most “thumbs-up”) win a LibraryThing t-shirt and a free lifetime membership (to keep or give away).

We didn’t have forty additional reviewers who both wrote a review and voted for others’ reviews, so everyone who did that will each receive a year’s free membership (to keep or give away).

Congratulations to everyone who participated! If you won a membership: I’ve upgraded your own if you weren’t already a lifetime or annual member; otherwise, go here to send your gift membership. For winners of the top prizes, I’ll be sending you a profile comment shortly!

You can read all the reviews here.


* I was actually shocked to find myself as the “first runner-up” (you can read my review here if you like). As per the rules, I am thus a “prize-less runner-up.”

Labels: contest, contests, reviews

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

November LTER batch is up!

The November 2012 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 86 books this month, and a grand total of 2,279 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Monday, November 26th at 6 p.m. EST.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Lake Claremont Press Archipelago Books Taylor Trade Publishing
Mulholland Books Tundra Books Putnam Books
Ballantine Books Monarch Books Riverhead Books
Pintail Simon & Schuster Random House
Henry Holt and Company Quirk Books Greenleaf Book Group
Stick Raven Press Penguin Young Readers Group Safkhet Soul
Safkhet Fantasy Nilgiri Press William Morrow
Palgrave Macmillan Small Beer Press Grey Gecko Press
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers Bethany House Human Kinetics
Hunter House BookViewCafe Plume
PublicAffairs Penscript Publishing House JournalStone
Prufrock Press McFarland Black Threads Press
Glagoslav Publications Ltd. Booktrope MSI Press
Alluvion Press Orbit Books

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Monday, November 5th, 2012

New ways to slice books by tags

LibraryThing members have added more than 91 million tags. It’s a truly unique repository of how real readers think about their books—the only sizeable bookish “folksonomy.” To bring out more in that data, I’ve added three new ways to slice the books for a given tag—sorting by a weighted proportion, recent popularity and recent publication.

Come learn more and talk about on Talk.

Labels: new features, tags

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Job: Systems Administrator and/or Hacker

Work anywhere!

Or work here!

You may never meet these fine people!

Brian Stinson, LibraryThing’s sysadmin is moving on–he’s landed a job working for Kansas State University, where he’s getting a Political Science degree. It’s a great move for him. We’re sad to see him go–and we need someone to step into his shoes!

The Job: Part-time Sysadmin or Full-time Wizard?

After all the good work by Brian and John before him, and with support from our our programmers, Mike Topper, Chris Holland and Chris Catalfo, LibraryThing’s systems administration is no longer a full-time job. Brian worked part-time.

So we’re looking to fill either:

  • Part-time sysadmin
  • Part-time sysadmin, part-time PHP programmer

As one of our programmers, Mike, has sysadmin experience, the proportion of sysadmin-ing may be as low as 25%. But you need to be able to handle more than that.

Systems Administrator

Qualifications: We’re looking for someone with broad systems administration experience, who can quickly pick up unfamiliar technologies, diagnose problems and keep everything running smoothly. You need to be calm under pressure, cautious and an excellent communicator. We’re a small team, so when things break at 4am, you need to be available.

Work Anywhere. LibraryThing is “headquartered” in Portland, Maine, but the servers are in Boston and many employees are in neither. We never even MET our last sysadmin—John in Tasmania.

Experience: Applicants need considerable experience running websites. Experience in Linux systems administration is essential; we use RHEL and CentOS, but you’ve probably got professional experience with at least half a dozen distros. Experience with MySQL is also important, including replication, monitoring and tuning. You will need to be able to demonstrate experience with remote server administration including lights-out management techniques and equipment.

Technologies. Here’s a partial list of the technologies we use.

  • Apache
  • Nginx
  • Memcache
  • Solr
  • Subversion
  • PHP
  • Python
  • Bash shell scripting
  • Munin
  • rrdtool
  • Xen and KVM virtualization
  • NFS
  • LVM
  • iscsi

PHP Programmer

LibraryThing runs on PHP, MySQL and JavaScript. We also have work for mobile app developers. Basically, we’d love to hear how you can help us.

You can find out more about our programming needs in this older post. If you’re applying as a programmer too, be sure to see and take the programming quiz below.

Compensation

Salary plus gold-plated health insurance.

How to Apply

Email: sysadminjob@librarything.com. Send an email with your resume. In your email, go through the sections of the blog post above, and indicate how you match up with the job. Be specific.(1) Please do not send a cover letter.

If you want to stand out, go ahead and take the LibraryThing Programming Test. We’ll definitely ask you to take it before we interview you.

Another job: We have another open job too, a new position as Customer support for LibraryThing for Libraries.


1. This job is going to be posted lots of places, and that means we’ll get a lot of people “rolling the dice.” If you don’t seem like you’re applying for this job, we’ll ignore your email.

Labels: employment, jobs

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

New feature: your list statistics

LibraryThing Lists is still a “semi-released” feature, but we’ve added a simple statistics feature to show you where your books match up with lists created so far:

If you’re signed in, you can find List statistics here:
http://www.librarything.com/profile/MEMBERNAME/stats/lists

If you’re not signed in, here’s Tim’s:
http://www.librarything.com/profile/timspalding/stats/lists

You can find lists (and create your own!) here:
http://www.librarything.com/lists

Here’s a look at the by-list view:

And in the by-work view:

Come discuss the feature here.

Labels: new feature, new features, statistics

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

October Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes author interviews with David Quammen, Rachel Hartman, Karen Engelmann, and Jaime Manrique, plus some activity ideas from the co-authors of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.

I had the great pleasure of talking to David Quammen about his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton & Company). Some excerpts:

Before we get too far, can you give us the nutshell explanation of zoonosis and spillover, for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book? What sorts of diseases are we talking about here?

Zoonosis is an animal infection transmissible to humans. It can be a virus, a bacterium, a protozoan, a number of other infectious bugs. It doesn’t necessarily cause disease in humans, but if it does cause symptoms once it gets into humans, then we call it a zoonotic disease. Spillover is the label for the moment when any sort of an infectious pathogen passes from one species into another, but we particularly think of it in terms of animal infections passing into humans.

That includes a whole rogue’s list of the best-known diseases, and also some little-known things: it includes 60% of the infectious diseases that we know, under the strict definition of zoonosis. That runs from West Nile and hantavirus, Lyme Disease, all the influenzas, Ebola, Marburg, a couple of exotic little-known things called Nipah virus from Bangladesh, and Hendra virus from Australia. Also SARS, which came out of southern China, and of course HIV, the AIDS pandemic, also began with a zoonotic spillover.

Was there a particular author who inspired you as a writer?

There’s one author who influenced me hugely, by far my largest literary influence and it’s probably going to seem counter-intuitive, but that’s William Faulkner. I started as a fiction writer, and before I was a fiction writer I was a fiction reader. I started reading Faulkner when I was a freshman in college, and became obsessed with him (like a lot of people do because he’s such a great writer). I did my graduate work on structure in Faulkner’s novels, and then I started my writing career publishing novels myself. I discovered that I wasn’t really meant to be a novelist and I turned into a non-fiction writer. But even now, when I spend six years or eight years researching a non-fiction subject, a big sprawling topic like zoonotic diseases or island biogeography, and then the time comes to put that together into a 500-page book, or a 600-page book, what I learned from closely, closely examining and pondering the structure of Faulkner’s novels serves me very, very well.

Read the rest of our interview with David Quammen.

I also had the chance to talk with Rachel Hartman about her first fantasy novel Seraphina (Random House). A few teasers:

Your dragons are quite different from those created by other authors; tell us a bit about them, and how you came up with the idea to portray them as you have.

My dragons can take human form, but they rigidly suppress their human emotions, which they find distastefully overwhelming and undragonlike. They’ve been called “scaly Vulcans” by some reviewers: not a perfect analogy, but close enough to give the right idea.

The idea of dragons struggling with being human came to me a few years ago when I learned about a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder. Our brains filter out sensory information so we aren’t overwhelmed by it, and different people’s filters work differently well. It occurred to me that dragons in dragon form would be accustomed to one set of senses: excellent eyesight and smell, indifferent hearing, poor touch and taste. What would it be like to go from those senses to ours, to taste sweetness for the first time or feel with our sensitive skin? From contemplating their senses, it wasn’t much of a stretch to start thinking about emotions. Would dragons in their natural state even have emotions? In my conception, it’s not that they don’t have them at all but that they’re very reflexive and physical. “Fight or flight” is as close as they get to anger and fear, but surely the softer emotions are a messy mammalian thing, for parent-child bonding and social cohesion.

We aren’t born knowing what to do with emotions; I’ve learned this from raising a child. How well are dragons going to be able to cope? They would need some rules for how to keep themselves from being overwhelmed. In my world, they’ve taken a pretty repressive—draconian, even—approach to maintaining their essential dragon-ness. Dragons who “lose” themselves to emotion are sent home and lobotomized. It’s harsh, but they think it’s necessary.

What’s your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

I have a large collection of books on various Medieval subjects: architecture, costume, musical instruments, military history, women’s history, material culture. The jewel of my collection is a three-volume work, The Plan of St. Gall, about a Medieval monastery that was designed but never built. I also have a lot of graphic novels, shelves of classical Greek (which I studied for four years in college), and all my favourite fiction. My husband’s books overlap with mine, so there’s philosophy, science, and many books in Irish.

Read the rest of our interview with Rachel Hartman.

My third interview for October was with Karen Engelmann. We talked about her really enjoyable debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo (Ecco):

Folding fans and the “language of fans” play a key role in the plot. Is this a particular passion of yours? Of all the fans you describe so vividly in the story, do you have a favorite?

My mother gets the credit for inspiring the folding fans. She had a modest collection, but they were magical to me, especially as a child. Much later, I visited an exhibition of rare fans in a museum in Sweden, and was taken by their beauty, mystery and opulence. When I decided to write a novel set in late 18th-century Europe that had female characters in central roles, I knew folding fans would play an important part. Women used every available means at their disposal to survive in the man’s world of the period, and the use of folding fans as a means of communication was an aspect too delicious to ignore. Of the fans in the book, I would want to possess the Chinese Princess, the fan that Mrs. Sparrow throws on the table as a bet in the card game against The Uzanne. The Princess is a child’s fan made of pierced ivory, so she is small and sturdy enough to carry around in my purse, and has a red silk tassel for some added pizzazz.

What was your research process like for the book? You lived in Sweden for a time, right? Any particularly useful sources you’d recommend to your readers?

Living in Sweden for nine years gave me the sensory information, the language skills, and the interest in Swedish history that inspired the novel. The actual research was challenging, since the best material on Gustav and Stockholm is written in Swedish and so required more time and concentration. I have two good friends who provided invaluable help, sending stacks of books (including a Swedish dictionary that must weigh 15 pounds). There is a bibliography on my website for interested readers (both Swedish and English sources) and I would love to see the Swedish volumes translated into English. One cautionary note for writers: the amount of available material can be overwhelming. If you are fascinated by a topic, it can be hard to know when to stop and the story and characters never emerge. Plus, writers want to stuff everything they’ve learned into the narrative and this can kill the story. About 100 pages of my manuscript were cut and most of it was factoids. Listen to your editors!

Read the rest of our interview with Karen Engelmann.

I was very pleased to be able to chat with Jaime Manrique about his latest novel, Cervantes Street (Akashic Books), a biographical novel about Miguel de Cervantes.

Do you recall how the idea for this book originated, or which part came to you first?

One afternoon, about 15 years ago, I was in bed with the flu and in a cable channel I saw a program about Cervantes. Although I had read Don Quixote a couple of times over the years, I knew very little about its author—other than he had lost the use of his left arm fighting in the Battle of Lepanto. When I found out about his captivity in Algiers for five and half years, that later in life he had been in jail twice, that in his 20s he fled Madrid because he wounded a man in a tavern brawl, and the punishment was exile for ten years and the lost of his right hand, I was blown away. It was a life that only a writer of adventure stories could have made up. At that moment, I determined to learn more about this man—about whom little else is known, anyway.

Most folks probably know Cervantes for Don Quixote; tell us about his other works, and which of them would you recommend to contemporary readers?

Unlike Shakespeare who wrote many great plays, Cervantes wrote only one great novel. His other full-length novels are kind of unreadable; his verse is undistinguished. However, the plays that survive are interesting and have splendid moments and beautiful language, and the short ones are marvelous comic inventions. Among the Exemplary Novels are a couple of dazzling jewels. I’m very fond of the Colloquium of the Dogs—which though a bit long-winded is a marvelously unique and inspired short novel.

Read the rest of our interview with Jaime Manrique.

And last but not least, there’s a neat book out this month from Bloomsbury, Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. I asked the co-authors, Elizabeth Foy Larsen and Joshua Glenn, to share the activities from the book which their families have enjoyed.

Elizabeth recommends:

Yarn bombing: My kids and I used yarn that was sitting in my knitting bag to create a brightly striped rectangle that we turned into a legwarmer for a banister in a particularly grey part of our hometown. To make it even more fun, we waited until it was well past bedtime and dressed up in dark clothes and headlamps to install it. A creative way to add a pop of color to industrial landscapes.

Explode things: Everyone has tried the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment. My kids and I went one step better by chewing a Mento until it was soft enough to cram in the cap of a one liter bottle. Then we put the cap back on, turned the bottle upside down, and threw it onto the street. Then we ran like heck in the other direction while the bottle rocketed more than 25 yards down the street. Watch on YouTube.

Cigar box guitar: A cigar store gave my husband and kids a wooden cigar box with a gorgeous label. They worked together to build a four-string guitar that he uses to play Rolling Stones songs. A challenging but fun activity that is both useful and beautiful to look at. See video of the guitar in action.

And from Josh:

Making LED graffiti: Taking inspiration from the Graffiti Research Lab (a guerrilla street-art outfit), I rounded up a bag of 10mm diffused superbright LEDs, a fistful of 3V lithium batteries, and a stack of disc-shaped rare earth magnets, and handed it all over to my sons and their three girl cousins. They taped these together, thus creating beautiful “glowies” and—even better—”throwies.” Check them out!

Misusing the Foursquare app: The location-based social networking Foursquare is intended for use by 20-somethings interested in friend-finding and nightlife-bragging. But my family enjoys using it to transform our city—and everywhere else—into a game. It’s an app that doesn’t just ask you to stare at a screen; instead, it encourages you to discover new places … some hiding in plain sight.

See more videos and photos from Unbored at www.unbored.net, or download a PDF of these selected activities. Thanks to Elizabeth and Josh for sharing some of their favorite ideas from the book!


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